Earlier this month, the National Zoo's red-billed hornbill gave birth in the Zoo's bird house—the first red-billed hornbill birth there in 16 years.
And though keepers have confirmed at least one chick, they say they still don't know exactly how many little white and gray chicks they have (just yet).
Because the native African birds, recognized for their long tail and bright, curved bill, have an unusual nesting process, keepers haven't been able to get a closer look. Which means there could be two or more chicks in the nest.
Typically, before a mother red-billed hornbill lays her eggs, she decides on a location for her chicks—in this case, a nest in the bird house—and seals herself into it with food, droppings and mud with the help of her male mate, leaving just a tiny, narrow opening. Over the next eight weeks, while she lays and incubates her eggs, the mother will molt her flight feathers so that she can't fly, which means she relies on her mate to bring her food through the opening, keepers say.
Dan Borrit, one of the bird's keepers, says the mother has spent the last day or two working on the next step in the process: breaking out of the nest, which typically happens when the chicks are about a third to halfway grown. When the mother breaks free of the nest (sporting new flying feathers) she leaves her babies on their own. And the chick(s), like their mother before them, seal the nest again, save a small slit, which the parents both use to feed their young.
Once the chicks decide they're ready to leave the nest, they finally break out themselves—something they likely won't do for several more weeks, Borrit says. Only then will keepers know for sure how many chicks they have, though keepers (and visitors to the zoo) may be able to sneak a peek of the parents feeding one or more bills through the nests' opening before that.
Let's keep our fingers crossed for two chicks or more—you can never have too many baby hornbills around (especially when they're as cute as their mother).